Joey Logano earned his first win of the 2017 season in the Toyota Owners 400 this past Sunday at Richmond International Raceway in his 300th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start. But don’t let that squinty-eyed smile fool you: this was not easy.
The No. 22 Ford of Logano and company started at the rear of the field due to a transmission change after qualifying fifth, a change that crew chief Todd Gordon called a “no brainer.” He slowly and methodically made his way up inside the top 20, then 15, then 10, five, and before you knew it, the checkered flag was flying and Logano was doing donuts in Virginia.
“I was driving my guts out out there,” Logano said in victory lane. “That’s all I had. We won with a car that may not have been a winning car, so that’s something to be very proud of as a team. That means the execution was there and we were able to put ourselves in position to race there hard at the end. Brad (Keselowski) was the fastest car. He was so fast.”
On lap 377, the final caution was brought out for Ryan Blaney hitting the wall in turn three. That set up varying strategies, which saw most drivers pit while just a handful (six to be exact) stayed out. Logano passed the cars on older tires in front of him the fastest and pulled away from his Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, for the final 19 laps en route to his 18th points-paying victory–his second at “The Action Track”–of his career.
“We were just fast enough to break through and kind of steal a win,” Logano told reporters in the media center post-race. “We had a decent car. We were in the lead when the caution came out there and we looked like we were in pretty good shape, and then, obviously, to have the good pit stops and all that, I don’t know if you’d call that stealing. We didn’t get lucky. We were able to just do what we know how to do.”
CLOSE FOR KESELOWSKI
For most of the back-half of the event, it seemed as if Brad Keselowski was going to claim his third victory of the season. But cautions breed cautions, and being in the wrong lane on the wrong restart ended up being Keselowski’s Achilles’ heel, as he couldn’t recover.
“I was just hoping for another restart or the race to get extended for another 10 laps,” Keselowski said post-race after leading 110 laps and winning stage two. “I think we had a ton of long-run speed today. That short run at the end, half the field came (down pit road), half the field didn’t. I just got stuck in a lane of cars that didn’t go (on the restart).”
Following the Team Penske duo of Logano and Keselowski to the start/finish line were Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Rounding out the top ten, it was Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Martin Truex Jr.
Some other notable finishers included Jimmie Johnson in 11th, Kyle Larson in 14th, Clint Bowyer in 15th and Kyle Busch in 16th. Matt Kenseth won stage one and led 164 laps before a flat tire ruined his day, finishing 23rd. Chase Elliott finished 24th, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 30th after late-race unintentional contact from Johnson sent him into the wall, knocking the toe out.
IS JGR CURED?
Finishes of third, 12th, 16th and 23rd aren’t bad, but they aren’t good. These results can be a little deceiving, though. So, let’s delve a little deeper into Joe Gibbs Racing’s afternoon.
Hamlin carried the banner for JGR on Sunday, leading 59 laps and ultimately finishing in third place. He also garnered 47 points from finishing well in both stages. Suarez somehow rebounded to finish in the top 15 after being a lap down at one point and stuck in the mid-30s of the running order. He’s done it before this season: go through rookie growing pains for the first two stages and then adjust to finish well, and in some cases, above his veteran teammates.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Kyle Busch was mad after a race that didn’t go his way. Well, that was the case Sunday. He was penalized for a commitment line violation on the final round of pit stops while running second and was never able to recover. He did as much as he could behind the wheel of his No. 18 M&M’s Camry and finished 16th, not indicative of his day.
Kenseth won the first stage and didn’t surrender the top spot for over 120 laps. He started from the pole and was one of the fastest cars on track for the first 200 laps of the Toyota Owners 400. But as the race track changed, rubber was put down and everyone else adjusted, the No. 20 fell off a tad. After some contact with the No. 24 of Chase Elliott resulted in a flat tire on the Circle K Toyota, Kenseth couldn’t get past 23rd place. Again, a bad finish for an overall solid day.
So, are they cured? Eh, too early to tell. They needed solid runs from all four of their teams this weekend, though, and they got that. Don’t hit that panic button just yet, Coach Gibbs.
COMMITMENT LINE WOES
At Richmond, committing to pit road means the car must be below the orange box which signals the start of pit road. Not on the box, not above the box, all four below the orange box.
NASCAR penalized six drivers in the MENCS race and four in the XFINITY race this weekend for commitment line violations. They included Clint Bowyer, Truex Jr. and Almirola, among others.
The most notable of the penalties was Kyle Busch, who got hit at the most inopportune time. “Balls and strikes,” was the quote from Busch when asked to comment about the penalty.
Last season, the rule was that only two tires needed to be on or below the orange box. But NASCAR changed the rule to four to create more continuity across all race tracks when it comes to a box, a cone, a line or anything else to delineate the entrance to pit road.
“We actually made it abundantly clear and kept stressing that the commitment line rule has changed at Richmond,’’ Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning. “They got in the heat of battle and obviously didn’t remember what we said. Unfortunate circumstance.
“We make the rule, we have to live by it and officiate by it and that’s what happened yesterday. I think that’s probably no different than the extra timing lines and the speeding penalties when we put that in, it’s just them trying to get used to something new seems to be pretty difficult.’’
After two straight weekends beating and banging on the short-tracks on the East Coast, Talladega Superspeedway looms in the distance. The 2.66-mile tri-oval will play host to the GEICO 500 on Sunday, May 7 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX. Keselowski is the defending winner.